Monday, October 26, 2015

Greenwashing consumer’s green hopes…

With Deepawali round the corner, almost every Indian household is busy with whitewashing their homes and repainting them with colours to reflect the spirit of firecrackers and Goddess Lakshmi. Ironically, around the same time, we are also hearing about a new concept called “Greenwashing”.  And the concept becomes starkly clear in the light of the recent Volkswagen (VW) emission controversy that has set the Green industries crackling under pressure.

Decoding the term "Greenwashing"

Greenwashing was a term coined by New York environmentalist, Jay Westervelt, in 1986. He observed that some of the hotels that had placed Green Cards in Hotel bathrooms highlighting reuse of towels ostensibly to ‘save the environment’, where in fact doing so just to garner publicity which could lead to increased profitability. Westervelt thus labeled this and other outwardly environmentally conscientious acts with a greater underlying purpose of profit, as Greenwashing.

Accoding to Terrachoice, a consulting firm that studied this phenomenon, found that 95% of the products marketed as eco-friendly had committed at least one of the “seven sins” of Greenwashing. 

 The seven sins are:
  1. Sin of the hidden trade-off: A claim suggesting that a product is green based on a narrow set of attributes.
  2. Sin of no proof: An environmental claim that cannot be substantiated;
  3.   Sin of vagueness: A claim that is so poorly defined that it remains ambiguous.
  4.    Sin of worshipping false labels: A product that’s using fake green labels;
  5. Sin of irrelevance: An environmental claim that maybe truthful but unimportant like CFC-free, since all products have to be, as CFC is banned;
  6. Sin of lesser two evils: A claim that maybe true for the product, but risks distracting consumer from the greater environmental impacts of the product category as a whole, like say fuel-efficient SUV;
  7. Sin of fibbing: An environmental claim that’s totally false, like products claiming to be Energy Star certified when they are not.

What happened at Volkswagen?

Volkswagen has for the longest time portrayed itself as a Green Crusader, with its 2013 Think Blue campaign and the stolid German trust as the harbinger of all its Social Responsibility campaigns. In the year 2013, under the Think Blue campaign, VW promoted its new fuel efficient and low emission models. In 2015, VW promoted diesel as a low-emissions alternative to gasoline and spent about $77 million in the US market. And as everyone now knows, VW was using software to trick emission tests on 11 million of its vehicles. Not only has this casted an aspersion on VW’s brand name, it has left discussions on all Green initiatives’ dubious and questionable.

Other examples of Greenwashing campaigns, and this list is definitely not exhaustive:

  •  American airline EasyJet’s claim that traveling on their plane is better for the environment than driving a hybrid car;
  •   Tyson Foods USA which was using “all natural” labels on its Chicken, even though they were treated with antibiotics and genetically modified corn;
  •   Clairol’s shampoo brand, Herbal Essences’, claim of a ‘truly organic experience’ was busted with the discovery of chemicals in the shampoos like lauryl sulfate and propylene glycol which aren’t really that organic;
  • In 2014, Korean car manufacturers Kia and Hyundai paid $300 million fine for overstating the gas mileage for its 1.2 million vehicles.

So, in a world of false promises, here’s another one that customers are now easily playing into since it’s all about caring for the environment. In India too, this fad has been catching up with people willing to pay more for organic and environment friendly products. Going further, Greenwashing should be highlighted more especially since customers are nowadays more gullible especially when it comes to electronic products, baby toys, diapers, pet food, paper products and even laundry detergents.

- Ms. Monica Mor
  Senior Faculty, INLEAD

Images Courtesy: Google Images 

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